And so we come to the last of my thoughts on expanding our vision of the church. Truth be told this last point really sums up much of my thinking on the church in the 21st Century. Relationship and relationship building is foundational to a growing church. In fact all I’ve said in my recent posts have really been about relationships. Community is about our relationships with each other. Spirituality is about our relationship with God. Mission is about our relationship with those outside the church. If you take nothing else away from this series please keep in mind the utter necessity of building healthy, loving relationships in the church.
Let’s be honest we all know this to be true. Take a moment to think about why you’re a person of faith today, or better yet who played a role in that process. Who are the people who shaped and guided your faith journey? Was it parents grand-parents? Perhaps a priest or minister? Maybe it was a teacher or other mentor? And I’m willing to bet that it’s not just one thing about that person or people that make them stand out. What makes them special is the relationship that you shared with them. It’s not the lessons they taught, sermons preached, or liturgies they lead but the relationship that you shared that shaped you.
In my own life I can point to numerous examples. There are my parents to whom I will be ever grateful for the love and patience they have shown to me. This relationship is still forming who I am. There is also a youth pastor who was not that great of a preacher, or teacher, or administrator but he did have a knack for being with us kids. He was fun to be around. He treated us like people, not stupid kids or little grown ups, just people. Because of that we responded to him. He’s had a big influence on my faith development and on my ministry.
As an adult there have been numerous people who have guided me along the path of faith. Profs, a retired bishop, a very special cousin, parishioners, young people and the relationships we shared have had a huge impact on me. My wife and children too have had a hand in making me who I am. All of this through the power of relationships.
It can be hard, though, in an institution like the church to nurture relationships. Oftentimes bureaucracy and hierarchies can get in the way. We’ve all heard stories of cold and distant clergy and parishioners that have turned people off from faith communities, perhaps even from faith altogether. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The bible tells us the stories of a God who values relationship. God enters into covenant relationship with the Hebrew people. The incarnation is God entering into relationship with us. Jesus spent his time among the people and in particular with his disciples. This carries over into the early church. In Acts we’re told that the early Christians were together and shared everything in common. The apostle Paul too took great pains to plant and grow relationships in Christian communities.
In my initial post in this series I talked about the church as a machine. We spend great sums of energy and resources to keep our religious machines churning. We need to realize, though, that the machine is not what matters. What matters is people; what matters is people in relationship with God and each other. Can our old structures and ecclesiologies support this relationship emphasis? Maybe. But if we replace the old structures with new ones but still keep the old values or order, authority and power plays then nothing will change.
German theologian Jurgen Moltmann says we need to move from a hierarchical ecclesiology to a relational ecclesiology. Simply put he calls for a church guided by relationships and not hierarchies. Its obvious though that hierarchies are a form of relationships. But what Moltmann is calling the church to is a community that puts the needs of people above hierarchical relationships. Just as Jesus said the Sabbath was created for the people and not the other way round, so the tradition, the office, the canon, the ritual was created for the people and not the other way round.
That means consensus building, as messy and frustrating as it might be. It also means realizing that it’s not just a special elite group within the church (ie bishops and clergy) who have a monopoly on deciding the future direction of the church. God’s Spirit is just as active in the lives laypersons. Also a relational approach to ministry would be nice; a ministry spent living with people, as equals, on their level. And I’m speaking to both lay and ordained folk here. Create and nurture relationships in the community with other organizations, schools, and movements. Build bridges with other Christian denominations and religious communities. God is calling us into all types of exciting relationships. The thing we need to realize is that God is moving and acting all around us, in all types of people and places. We need to recognize this, celebrate it, and join in with what God is doing. God is calling us beyond the status quo.